A Jewish Perspective on American Concentration Camps
Never Again is not just about us.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez received a backlash this week, for tweeting a link to an Esquire article about the Trump administration’s current system of concentration camps, and how it fits into a broader global history of concentration camps.
I am a Jewish American, and I will say this clearly: The United States government is currently imprisoning adults, children, and babies in concentration camps. These human rights violations need to end.
The term “concentration camp” refers to a camp in which people are detained or confined, usually under harsh conditions and without regard to legal norms of arrest and imprisonment.— The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
AOC did not claim everything that happened in Nazi-run concentration camps is happening today in the US. She did not say death camps or extermination camps. She’s right that the US is currently running concentration camps, and it’s not the first time.
This month, the Trump administration announced they’ll detain 1,400 children at Fort Sill, an Oklahoma military base where Japanese-Americans were interned during WWII. (It’s worth mentioning, the Obama administration also used Fort Sill to detain children.)
Yes, Japanese-American internment camps were concentration camps too. FDR, who signed the order to establish the camps, even called them concentration camps. And there are other examples, like concentration camps the US built in US-owned Philippines.
This week, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tweeted “‘Concentration camp’ is an extremely charged term and I get why many people are, in good faith, uncomfortable with its application for Godwin’s Law purposes among others. So let’s just call them ‘detention camps’ and focus on what’s happening in them.”
Mike Godwin, creator of Godwin’s Law, tweeted back that the charged term is appropriate here, because they actually are concentration camps.
Godwin’s Law is a meme, noting that, as an online discussion progresses, it becomes inevitable that someone or something will eventually be compared to Adolf Hitler or the Nazis.
Invoking Godwin’s Law can be a way to protect ourselves from acknowledging legitimate horrors. It’s much easier to deny than to acknowledge our complicity, as citizens, in a horrific system. It’s easier to stay ignorant than to realize it’s our responsibility to work to change things.
A report last month from the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security details how, at El Paso Del Norte Processing Center (PDT) in Texas, Border Patrol workers detained 900 people in a building with a legal maximum capacity of 125. The government held many of them in standing-room-only conditions for days or weeks, including 41 people in a cell built for 8.
Lawyers who observed an overcrowded children’s “border station” in Clint, Texas this week told the New York Times children as young as 7, many in clothes caked with snot and tears, are caring for infants they’ve just met.
Meanwhile, Trump administration lawyer Sarah Fabian argued this week in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that the federal government should not have to provide soap, toothbrushes or beds to children. A 1997 settlement agreement established that for the humane treatment of detained migrant minors, conditions must be “safe and sanitary.” When a district judge added the specific requirement that the government must provide soap and toothbrushes, Trump’s Justice Department appealed.
What definition of “safe and sanitary” does not include soap and toothbrushes? How much money is the US government spending on legal defense in order to avoid providing sanitary conditions for children?
What more do we need to hear before we find the courage to say, as a nation, our government is running concentration camps, and this needs to end?
Never Again doesn’t just mean never again to the Jews. Never Again doesn’t just mean never again with somebody named Hitler. We as a world have already failed many times with Never Again. But we can choose to look directly at atrocities, to try to do better, especially when they are right here in our country, funded by our tax dollars.
As the article AOC retweeted explains, concentration camps existed before and after the ones Nazis built in the 1930s for Jews (and homosexuals, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and political prisoners).
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum defines concentration camp as “a camp in which people are detained or confined, usually under harsh conditions and without regard to legal norms of arrest and imprisonment.”
Under this definition, is there any question the Trump administration is currently running concentration camps in the US?
I grew up observing Yom HaShoah, the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, when Holocaust survivors visited my temple to tell their stories. My whole life, I knew I was only alive because my great-grandparents emigrated to the US before the Holocaust.
I was 10 when my family took me to see the R-rated Schindler’s List in the theater. My very first memory of seeing naked adult bodies is the crowds of emaciated prisoners in that film. I imagined the only reason I could watch a 3-and-a-half-hour movie without getting up to pee was because I cried all the liquid out of me.
I mention my childhood steeped in Holocaust education, because recently I’ve learned many non-Jews didn’t learn this history the same way. They know the Holocaust was horrible. They know it was about Jews. They know it’s on a pedestal of horror. But they don’t know details, and so they don’t know when and if it’s useful to compare other atrocities.
They think Hitler is Voldemort, and if we don’t say his name, if we try to avoid Godwin’s Law, then we’ll all get our Never Again happy ending.
But I agree with Rabbi Brant Rosen, who wrote in Newsweek, “As a rabbi, a Jew and a person of conscience, allow me to put it as plainly as I can: AOC’s use of this phrase was altogether appropriate. I do not and cannot view this call as ‘Holocaust terminology.’ On the contrary: ‘Never Again’ means never again for anyone, or else it doesn’t mean anything at all.”
On Yom HaShoah, Jews force ourselves to listen to the stories of survivors so we know the horrors that happened, the horrors that continue to be possible in the modern world. We listen so we know the signs, so we recognize the complacency that made the horrors possible. And to that complacency, we say Never Again.
I named my daughter after Zivia Lubetkin, an incredible woman you’ve probably never heard of.
Along with others, she founded the ZOB (Jewish Fighting Organization) and the Anti-Fascist Bloc, the first resistance organization in the Warsaw Ghetto to fight back against the Nazis. Lubetkin was a leader of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, managing communications and rescuing people through the sewers. She could have stayed safe in Soviet-controlled Poland, but she risked everything by sneaking into the Nazi-controlled Warsaw Ghetto.
She saved many lives and even survived the Holocaust herself, then emigrated to Palestine and founded Kibbutz Lohamei ha-Getta’ot (the Ghetto Fighters Kibbutz).
How does someone come to do heroic deeds? When she first arrived in the Warsaw Ghetto in January 1940, her underground activism was at the Socialist Dror house, a support and information center, and public kitchen. In 1941, she recognized the Nazi’s genocidal intent:
“ After we heard about Vilna on the one hand and about Chelmno on the other, we realized this was indeed systematic. … We stopped our cultural activities … and all our work was now dedicated to active defense,” she testified at the trial of Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann.
It is not always easy to do what’s right. It is not easy to admit how bad things are, that it is time to act. We want to believe things will sort themselves out on their own, or that someone else will fix it.
Let us find the strength to speak up, to admit what’s wrong — the Trump administration is running concentration camps in the US — and let us work together to fight back, by any means necessary.